Week 18: The Sword In The Stone

Knowledge and Wisdom Make Great Power

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Originally Released: 1963

The King Arthur legend is such good source material, it was only a matter of time before it would appear in a Disney animated film. This particular version of the story is based on a novel by author T.H. White, who first published his book in 1938. Walt Disney acquired the movie rights to the story in 1939, and as early as 1949 story drawings began to pop up.

The Sword in the Stone focuses on Arther’s childhood, before he knows that he is to become king, and explains how he met the wizard Merlin and became his student. Arthur,or Wart, as the foster family calls him, is simple-minded at first and only wishes to become a squire and a great fighter like everyone else of the time. Merlin knows that there is so much more he can become if he would only develop his mind and use it to his advantage. This idea that education, knowledge, and intelligence should be sought after and gives one an advantage is the central concept behind the whole movie.

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In order to give Wart this training and advantage, Merlin transforms Wart into various animals which allows him to learn how to adapt and escape sticky situations by using his brain, learning to use unfamiliar tools on the fly. Later, Wart gets a master class in this idea when he is captured by Mad Madam Mim and later rescued by Merlin. Merlin’s superior knowledge of animals and their strengths leads him to victory, even when Mim cheats.

Is that a Croc or a Fox? It is actually an impressive Transition animation. This scene is full of them.

Is that a Croc or a Fox? It is actually an impressive transition animation. This scene is full of them.

It was actually refreshing to watch this film again. I say this because I have to reach way back to Dumbo and Pinocchio to find a prior animated Disney film with such a relevant, true, and important moral to it. For example, as entertaining and beautiful as 101 Dalmations and Sleeping Beauty were, what are the morals we can glean from them? In the first, the best I can come up with is “don’t kill puppies to make fur coats”. Certainly a worthy ideal to aspire to, but not very useful in real life. In the case of Sleeping Beauty, perhaps we can say treat others, including hated enemies, as you would like to be treated. If the king and queen had invited Maleficent to the celebration, perhaps she would not have cursed Aurora. Okay probably not, but that’s as good as I can come up with. So it is good to see a Disney film that strives to reach beyond a simple telling of good vs. evil.

In addition to the moral, The Sword in the Stone also contains some great characters, such as Merlin, Archimedes, the sugar dish with an attitude, and Merlin’s beard (Merlin’s Beard!). Merlin is a bit underrated as a Disney character, I believe. He’s a pretty cool dude. And I love Archimedes. He is a sidekick/comic relief done right. If there were awards given for best Disney sidekick, he’d definitely be nominated in my book.

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However, there is one thing that bothers me with this movie each time I see it: recycling. I notice that certain character movements get used repeatedly. I know that this is a common trick in animation to cut down on time and money, but there is a point where it becomes painfully obvious, which leads to distraction. Two prime examples of this is older Brother Kay eating the turkey leg, and Wart falling down the stairs with his huge stack of dirty dishes. To use this tactic in such an obvious way is one thing for Saturday morning cartoons, but in a full-blown Disney feature production is another thing entirely.

Which leads me to my other related gripe: “Wha? Wait. Whoa!” If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. I guess I can’t be too harsh, because it does make me laugh. But it is a sign of sloppiness and cutting corners, which diminishes the overall quality of the film.

Wait for it...wait for it...

Wait for it…wait for it…

Overall, I still really enjoy The Sword in the Stone. I have always loved the King Arthur legend and Disney managed to extract from it a nice family-friendly story with a good lesson and which is filled with fun situations, interesting characters, and a good sense of humor. So despite the shortcuts taken, The Sword in the Stone was another job well done by the Disney animation team.

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"Wha? Wait. Whoa!"

“Wha? Wait. Whoa!”

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Week 17: 101 Dalmatians

Dogs, Dogs, Everywhere

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Originally Released: 1961

With the start of a new decade also came the start of a new era for Walt Disney’s animation studio. After the release of Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and all its excess and extravagance, Disney realized that they needed to figure out a way to cut costs. Some suggested he just abandon animation altogether since by this time Disney was involved in television, live-action movies, and Disneyland. But he refused to do so. But something did need to change, because Sleeping Beauty ended up almost killing the studio (again).

The solution lied in a new technology. Instead of transferring each drawing from the animator’s paper to the cell using a team of painters who carefully traced and colored the characters, Disney adopted a Xerox copy process which allowed the team to directly transfer the animator’s drawings to a cell with a machine. This drastically reduced costs and as a result Walt essentially cut the ink-transfer department at the studio.

Although this new process cut costs, it was a tradeoff. On the one hand, the animators were excited because for the first time, what was up on the screen was what they truly had drawn. On the other hand, the hand-painted cells were rather beautiful in their own right, Also, the character outlines could now only be black. And it also meant that if the animator’s drawings were not cleaned up enough, the rough marks would be transferred to the screen as well.

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101 Dalmatians was the first feature film to use this new process. After watching Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians one right after the other, I noticed difference easily. 101 Dalmations at times does indeed look rougher when comparing the two movies. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the film has an art style and a look all of its own. For the film, the artists actually decided that they would use the Xerox process not only for the animated characters, but also for the outlines of the backgrounds. This results in a certain blending and consistent feel throughout the film.

As for the film itself, it also represented a departure from the past. This was the first Disney animated feature film which had a truly modern-day setting (at the time, at least). 101 Dalmatians even pokes fun of some societal items of the time (Kanine Krunchies can’t be beat!). The music has a modern feel, and the film isn’t dependent on musical numbers. There are a few songs, including the great “Cruella De Vil” song, but they fall well into a real-life scenario as opposed to a typical song in a musical.

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These differences are significant, but they do not diminish the quality of the film, nor do they eliminate that “Disney feel”. 101 Dalmatians is still a Disney movie through and through, loaded with memorable scenes and characters. I was impressed with the animal movement in Lady and the Tramp, but I am even more impressed with some of the animations of Pongo and Perdita, such as the scene where Pongo tugs Roger through the park.

In addition, 101 Dalmations has what some consider one of the best Disney villains ever (though I find this an especially difficult distinction to make, considering some of the great villains out there). Cruella De Vil is an outrageous and unique character, wonderfully animated and filled with personality.

All in all, Disney delved into this new era on the right foot with another great dog film. But after this film was released, I bet the animators were glad to be done with drawing dogs, and (over 6 million!) spots.

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Week 16: Sleeping Beauty

Stunningly Beautiful

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Originally Released: 1959

Let me just begin by getting this out of the way: I love Sleeping Beauty. I love the art. I love the music. I love its sense of humor. Maleficent is probably my favorite of all the Disney villains. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. While I consider it impossible to pin down my favorite Disney film of all, Sleeping Beauty is a strong contender for that coveted #1 spot. Some days it actually makes it to the top in my mind.

Knowing that, it should then come as no surprise that this was a highly-anticipated week for my project. It doesn’t take much coaxing to get me to watch Sleeping Beauty. And, unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the movie yet again.

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Let me begin with the art. I did actually learn something new this time around. The look of the film is largely attributable to a man named Eyvind Earle, who I previously did not take the time to learn about. He was a younger artist in the Disney studios, and he did a bit of training under the talented Mary Blair (who I mentioned in previous posts).  Walt Disney was impressed with his art and some of his ideas. In fact, he was so impressed that he made Eyvind the Art Director for the film, and gave him a large amount of authority over the other artists, including the animators. Walt wanted the original concept art style to make it to the final film without being “watered down.” I did not previously know that Eyvind was the source of the distinct look of the film.

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Eyvind personally had a hand in most of the backgrounds. I consider the backgrounds to be masterpieces in Sleeping Beauty. They are bright, colorful, highly stylized, and have incredible detail. This was the second Disney animated film to use a widescreen format, and Eyvind made the most of it. The backgrounds are practically bursting from every corner with intricate details and beautiful work. Everything from the bark of the trees to the small cracks in the stone walls of the castle, and from the townsfolk to table-top items is a sight to behold (as a side note, watching Sleeping Beauty on blu-ray for the first time was an absolute revelation. Before I watched it, my general opinion was “there’s no way an old 2d cartoon will look any better in high definition.” I was wrong, wrong, wrong). This is one film that I can pause virtually anywhere in the film and have an image I would want to hang on my wall. It is that beautiful.

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Look at the large tree. Then look at the two other trees and the bush. Then look at the trees even further off in the distance. The detail never ceases to amaze me.

As much as I’m a fan of the artwork, I am also a fan of the music. The music was adapted from the old ballet version of the story which was composed by Tchaikovsky (of Nutcracker fame), which was a brilliant move by Disney. To me, the Tchaikovsky music adds an extra bit of elegance to this film that separates it from some of the earlier Disney releases. And add to the Tchaikovsky score the perfect casting choices for the voices of Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip, and the result is highly satisfying music in Sleeping Beautywhich complements the art and animation in a great way.

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The art and music alone would be enough to win me over in this film. But it also has memorable characters. The three fairies are vintage, true Disney characters and I love the way they play off of each other. The baking/sewing scene has always been a favorite of mine, with their ineptitude at being mere mortals shining through. There is Phillip, who is the first Disney prince to have any real personality and animation/screen time. And of course, there is the vile Maleficent, voiced by Eleanor Audley, the same woman who did such a great job as Lady Tremaine in CinderellaThere is no real complexity to Maleficent that we know of. She is just pure evil, and is superbly animated, styled, and voiced. Combined, it results in a villain that is not soon forgotten.

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All of these things did not come easily for Disney and his team, nor did they come quickly or cheaply. Sleeping Beauty was in active production for roughly 8 years, and it was an extremely expensive film to produce. It demanded a lot from the animators and artists. But the result was something to marvel at, and it paid off in the end. It really shows in the final product that there was a great amount of hard work that went into making the film what it is. I, for one, am very glad they gave all that effort. If there is any Disney film that deserves to be called “classic,” Sleeping Beauty is it.

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Skumps, Skumps, Skuuuuummmmmps!

Skumps, Skumps, Skuuuuummmmmps!

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Week 15: Lady and the Tramp

Better Than Many Romantic Comedies Involving People

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Originally Released: 1955

(For those of you following along, I realize that as of the date of publishing this post, it isn’t really week 15 in the year. It turns out life happens, and watching and writing about Disney movies regretfully fell on my priorities list for the past few weeks. But I’m back to it now and I plan on getting back on schedule in the next few weeks!)

For Disney’s 15th full-length animated feature, Walt and the studio went in a more contemporary direction and away from the classic fairy tale route. In as early as 1937, sketches were made and the story for Lady and the Tramp began to be developed. Unlike many of the early Disney animated films, the story of Lady and the Tramp is a Disney original. And it ended up being pretty good, too.

Most people will instantly think of the famous “Spaghetti Kiss” when the name of the film is mentioned. It happens to me, and I tend to forget about rest of the movie. However, each time I watch Lady and the Tramp, I enjoy the whole film. In my opinion, it is a better romantic film than many recent (and quite a few older) attempts at the genre, which is sad considering we are dealing with dogs. But that is a testament to the film and its animators. They managed to create a film with characters that develop and grow, including the minor characters like Jock and Trusty.

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But most impressive to me this time were the little things such as puppy Lady whimpering like a real puppy would, all the dog mannerisms and movements, and the perspective of most of the film, which tends to be from a dog’s eyes. I also find it humorous that Lady’s owners are constantly referred to as “Jim Dear” and “Darling.” Lady and the Tramp has many little touches that add to the experience.

Little details like the shadows of the bars across the dogs (criminal stripes) really add to the film.

Little details like the shadows of the bars across the dogs (criminal stripes) really add to the film.

Lady and the Tramp also represents a first in the Disney canon: it was the first feature-length animated film to be filmed in a widescreen format. Ultimately, this is a great thing (especially for movie lovers), but it also represented a challenge for the animators and artists because it meant that there was more scenery that had to be created, painted and animated, and more to consider for balance. It is a nice touch, but I believe it wasn’t until Disney’s second attempt in widescreen that the switch would profoundly add to the movie.

Overall, Lady and the Tramp represents more Disney magic and shows that even when covering contemporary times and original ideas, Walt and his team could create a bella notte.

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His sister's name is Rosita Chiquita Juanita Chihuahua. His name? Pedro.

His sister’s name is Rosita Chiquita Juanita Chihuahua. His name? Pedro.